Nuclear testing in Australia
WHEN THE BOMBS CAME
Australia has a complex history with nuclear weapons. All lands in Australia are traditional lands of First Nations people. Within what is known as Australia there exist hundreds of language and cultural groups, and the sovereignty of these nations was never ceded. It is our understanding as ICAN Australia that all nuclear projects in Australia take place on Indigenous lands.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons recognises the disproportionate impact of nuclear weapons on Indigenous communities, women and girls, and those communities affected by nuclear testing. For Australians, our nuclear story involves not only the weapons themselves but the mining of uranium and other materials for the manufacturing of these weapons, nuclear weapons testing and development, and nuclear waste dumping.
Australia has been home to ancient continuous cultures for tens of thousands of years. Many of these cultures knew of problems with what we now identify as nuclear materials. Australia has been a supplier of nuclear materials to nuclear armed states. Australia hosts US bases that could help target nuclear weapons systems. And Australia has also had a long and involved history through nuclear weapons testing and development by the UK. This article provides some links to materials and background to understand some of the history of nuclear testing in Australia. There are far more stories found in the communities most directly affected, either used as testing grounds for nuclear weapons or as downwind communities impacted by those tests.
Uranium mining began in Australia in the first years of the 20th century but grew exponentially in the context of World War Two as nuclear weapons were being developed by British and American allies. Australia has over a third of the world’s recoverable uranium resources. From the mid 1970s onwards, the push for more uranium mines intensified, driven by an aggressive global nuclear industry. In 2021 however, there are currently only two operating uranium mines in Australia, following the closure of the long running Ranger uranium mine project on Mirarr land in the Northern Territory. This is in part the result of the strong community sentiment against uranium mining, with social and political consent for such projects being disputed over many decades, particularly by local communities, Indigenous rights advocates and environmental organisations. There are many previous and proposed uranium projects that continue to concern communities and require constant monitoring and remediation, but the significance of the resistance to nuclear projects, particularly from First Nations, can not be overstated.
In the post war years, having developed their first nuclear weapons, the British Prime Minister Atlee approached Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies seeking permission to test nuclear weapons on islands off Western Australia. PM Menzies, without recourse to Parliament or his Cabinet colleagues, immediately agreed. Under UK Prime Minster Churchill that the nuclear testing program began.
The British believed that these lands were ‘remote’, ‘empty’ and ‘far away’. For the people of Australia, such colonialist misconceptions proved deeply harmful.
Video: Anangu-Yankunytjatjara woman Karina Lester, daughter of elder Yami Lester who was blinded by the Totem 1 nuclear test, presents an Indigenous Statement to the negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, June 2017.
On 3 October 1952, the first nuclear test was conducted off the Monte Bello islands,
Traditional lands of the Noala peoples. The bomb was detonated below the waterline within a Royal Navy frigate. The British named this test Hurricane. A Royal Commission inquiry into the British nuclear tests in 1985 found that fallout reached the mainland around 30 hours after the blast and spread across much of the top part of Australia.
In 1952, the British moved to the South Australian deserts for a second series of tests. These tests were conducted at Emu Field, in South Australia on the lands of traditional Anangu peoples. The Totem 1 and Totem 2 tests were detonated from towers.
- Hurricane: Monte Bello islands, WA, 3 October 1952, yield 25 kilotons, around the size of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The mushroom cloud that resulted rose to around 10,000 feet within four minutes.
- Totem 1: Emu Field, SA, 15 October 1953, yield under 10 kilotons.
- Totem 2: Emu Field, SA, 27 October 1953, yield under 8 kilotons.
- Mosaic G1: Monte Bello islands, WA, 16 May 1956, yield around 16 kilotons.
- Mosaic G2: Monte Bello islands, WA, 19 June 1956, around 98 kilotons. This bomb was detonated from a tower mount and the cloud rose to over 47,000 feet.
- Buffalo 1: Maralinga, SA, 27 September 1956, yield of 13 kiloton, detonated from a tower.
- Buffalo 2: Maralinga, SA, 4 October 1956, yield of 1.5 kilotons, detonated at ground level.
- Buffalo 3: Maralinga, SA, 11 October 1956, yield of 3 kilotons, dropped from the air by a Royal Air Force plane, exploding at 500 feet.
- Buffalo 4: Maralinga, SA, 22 October 1956, yield under 11 kilotons, detonated from a tower.
- Antler 1: Maralinga, SA, 14 September 1957, under 1 kiloton.
- Antler 2: Maralinga, SA, 25 September 1957, around 6 kilotons.
- Antler 3: Maralinga, SA, 9 October 1957, yield of 26.6 kiloton.
In 1956 the British returned to the Monte Bello islands for a third test series. Mosaic G1 was detonated from a tower on Trimouille Island, with the resulting cloud rose to 21,000 feet, and radioactivity was detected on the mainland within a day. The second test took place on Alpha Island, Mosaic G2. This test was the largest test conducted by the British on Australian testing grounds, a precursor to the thermonuclear weapons they would later test on their Pacific colonies to the North. The safety committee that was established by the British and run by Australian and British scientists to monitor nuclear program insisted the test “posed no hazard to persons nor damaged livestock or other property,” a claim that was repeated throughout the testing, but refuted by Aboriginal survivors and others from the outset.
Following the Monte Bello tests, Maralinga – on the traditional lands of the Tjarutja Anangu people – became the testing ground for British nuclear tests from 1956. The Buffalo 1 test included live animals for the first time. Buffalo 2, Buffalo 3 and Buffalo 4 all followed.
The final three tests in Australia were the Antler series, again exploded at Maralinga. Antler 1 and Antler 2 were both tower mounted. The final test device, Antler 3, was suspended from a balloon at around 300 metres off the ground and exploded on 9 October 1957. With a yield of 26.6 kiloton, it was the largest nuclear test that the British conducted on the Australian mainland.
The total yield of the bombs detonated across the Monte Bello Islands, Emu Field and Maralinga testing grounds over the five years is estimated at 181 kilotons. Fallout from each of the tests carried across vast areas of Australia and was even traced in the Pacific islands.
Although the testing of major nuclear weapons ceased in Australia in 1957, the British also conducted over 600 ‘minor trials’ in the testing grounds between 1953 and 1963, mostly within the Maralinga testing range (though several were conducted earlier in Emu Field). These trials were essential to the further development of British nuclear weapons, designed to test various components of nuclear devices and safety mechanisms.
Some of the trials studied accidental or uncontrolled detonation of a nuclear weapons, others burned or exploded toxic and radioactive materials. These included toxic elements such as Beryllium or short-lived radiological materials such as Polonium-210, Lead-212 and Scandium-46. But highly radioactive materials such as Uranium-238, Uranium-235, and depleted Uranium were also used.
And most dangerously, around 24 kg of Plutonium were also used, burned, blown up and used in other experiments, spreading contamination through vast areas of the surrounding desert.
Video: Kokatha elder Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine speaks to the negotiating conference for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, March 2017.
Before they had stopped the testing in Australia, the British had commenced further testing operations on Malden Island in 1957. After the final Antler series in Maralinga, the British tested their first megaton hydrogen bomb, Grapple X, in November 1957 on Christmas or Kiritimati Island. More British tests took place up until 1958 on islands now recognised as the Republic of Kiribati.
British nuclear tests in Australia raised concerns of sovereignty and democratic processes as well as an abhorrent neglect for the safety of civilian and military personnel. The test program failed significantly to take into account and ensure the safety of Aboriginal peoples. Crippling official secrecy stymied both transparency and accountability for the impacts of nuclear tests, both in the major tests and the ‘minor trials’ for generations.
In total, an estimated 17,023 Australians are recognised as having taken part in the nuclear tests, with approximately 52% civilians and 48% classified as military personnel. Australian military personnel alone included 3,235 Navy, 1,658 Army and 3,223 Airforce. In addition, a Nominal Roll of test participants compiled in 2001 included 8,907 civilians, including ten Aboriginal people. Far more were impacted by the tests however, and many continue to seek recognition for the harms caused.
We were innocent – lambs to the slaughter – and have been treated with contempt by Australian governments of both political persuasions trying to sweep their tarnished history under the carpet. We have suffered; for many of our friends, life was cruelly taken away or changed forever by an unseen and largely unknown foe – ionising radiation.
– Avon Hudson, nuclear veteran and whistleblower.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) provides the only internationally agreed framework for all nations to verifiably eliminate nuclear weapons. Along with banning nuclear weapons and the infrastructure that supports it, the Treaty seeks to offer assistance to victims of nuclear weapons use and testing, as well as environmental remediation in places where these weapons have been used.
The bitter legacy of nuclear testing across Australia and the Pacific region should spur our government to join this new global effort.
Written by Dimity Hawkins AM, ICAN co-founder with material drawn from her in-depth paper “Australia: Ongoing Humanitarian, Human Rights and Environmental Concerns at Monte Bello, Emu Field and Maralinga Nuclear Test Sites”.
Video: Yhonnie Scarce, Kokotha and Nukunu artist, Ban School 3 August 2021.
Video: Debbie Carmody Anangu Spinifex Pilki and Western Nullarbor person, Ban School July 2021.
Webinar: After Trinity, 2020.
Report: Choosing Humanity, 2019. Chapter 4 focuses on nuclear testing in Australia.
ICAN/Peace Boat Making Waves speaking tour, 2018.
Indigenous Statement to the UN nuclear weapon ban treaty negotiations, 2017.
Video: Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine at the 3rd Conference on the Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons, 2014.
Booklet: ICAN Australia Black Mist, 2014.
Briefing paper: Dimity Hawkins on the positive obligations in the nuclear weapons ban treaty.
Webpage: ICAN international, information on nuclear testing.